Since its inception within UK schools, sex education has been a highly controversial subject. It has been typically influenced by a moral and political agenda relating to young people’s sexual behaviour, rather than seen as something that all young people are be entitled to.
Sex education should provide comprehensive information about relationships, sex, sexuality and sexual health in a way that is positively inclusive of diversity and reflects young people’s experiences, but too often it has fallen short of the mark.
Amidst rising public sexual health concerns and a series of unsupportive and restrictive policies, sex education has emerged firmly within a biological and health model. It predominantly focuses on emphasising the dangers of sex and therefore avoidance of early heterosexual activity, unwanted pregnancy and Sexually Transmitted Illnesses.
LGBT students left out of sex education
Consequently, sex education tends to be narrowly focused on heterosexual activity (and health), where sex is defined as intercourse between a man and a woman in relation to reproduction.
Most provision is not currently inclusive to all young people and most specifically, those identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT). These pupils are prevented from receiving information that reflects their experiences or needs based on teachers’ assumptions that the majority of their pupils are heterosexual and that LGBT pupils are isolated cases.
Where LGBT sexuality has featured in provision or teachers’ claims of inclusive content, this is often problematic. In these instances, LGBT content is typically delivered as an ‘add on’ to the main provision, or is addressed negatively through discussions around HIV. This works to pathologize LGBT pupils within their classroom and fails to provide LGBT students with necessary sex education, preventing the development of sexual competence and safe sex practices.
New Statutory Relationship and Sex Education (RSE)
Recently, the Department for Education finally unveiled their proposal to make Relationships Education (primary) and Relationships and Sex Education (secondary) statutory by 2020. In line with these new commitments, the government has issued new guidance containing information on RSE content under these new regulations.
This has been much anticipated after nearly 20 years without any revision to the RSE guidance first issued in 2000. Most notably, it is hoped that it will rectify the well-documented issues surrounding the variable and limited quality of RSE based on a lack of statutory status.
Despite this revision being the most comprehensive guidance to date, it is has received similar criticism as the existing guidance. It is plagued by ambiguity and fails to provide clarity on the practical delivery of RSE for teachers. For example, the guidance only presents a loose outline regarding what topics and content schools should cover. Under a current four month period of consultation (between July-November 2018), it is expected to receive a significant amount of feedback from a wide range of interested parties from (e.g. teachers, religious bodies, young people and interested organisations) who want to see more clarity in terms of delivery and support.
What are the implications for LGBT students?
While the proposed guidance clearly states that young people should learn and about sexuality in ‘inclusive ways’ and recommends that schools take an integrated approach to embedding LGBT content, it also contains loopholes that serve to undermine this.
For example, it stipulates that schools should ensure that teaching is ‘sensitive and age appropriate’, whilst also emphasising the school’s freedom to determine how teachers address LGBT content. This can be problematic for a number of reasons. Teachers have been found to conflate LGBT pupils’ sexual identity with their RSE needs, for example, they tend to see these pupils as needing information based solely on the concerns they are perceived to have about their sexual identity. This problematizes LGBT sexuality as it implicitly assumes that LGBT pupils experience their sexual identity negatively. In specifying that teaching should be sensitive (presumably trying to prevent more negative discussions), it may encourage some cautious and/or unsupported teachers, to limit their discussions.
More problematically, it may also allow more unwilling teachers and those who oppose LGBT sexuality and same-sex practices to curtail provision, based on a rhetoric of sensitivity and/or age appropriateness.
Indeed, many teachers often see LGBT pupils as needing alternative and more specialised information outside of “standard” SRE based on the aforementioned assumptions. Given that there is a lack of understanding around what constitutes real inclusivity, this guidance needs to less ambiguous on what this means in practice. If not, many teachers may believe that they are being inclusive, whilst actually excluding their pupils.
Retaining the right for parents to withdraw their child from RSE also undermines many of the central policy commitments of the new guidance (e.g. protecting young people’s psychological and physical welfare). As such, despite its new statutory status and what appears to be a desire for a more inclusive approach to sex education, many teachers may struggle circumvent the potential barriers that pupils identifying as LGBT often face in this context.
While not the intention, this is often the result of cautious and ambiguous policy. The government is trying to balance the diverging needs of various interest groups (e.g. parents, school governors and religious groups) in an attempt proactively appease the inevitable opposition. Conversely, this may undermine many of the central policy moves advocated in the current guidance, which arguably also occurred with previous UK SRE policy making.